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The Two Faces of Regret

(Published in the Summer 1998 edition of the Yad Vashem Quarterly Magazine)

"It is my fervent hope that the document: We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, ...will indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices. May it enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible."

So writes Pope John Paul II in his correspondence to Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, responsible for preparing the 14-page document on the Vatican's role in the Holocaust. The document, which has taken 11 years to produce, has engendered strong reactions by both Catholics and Jews. Many commentators have praised the document as a positive first step for its message of repentance and remembrance. Others have criticized it for not taking direct responsibility for the Church's failure to ameliorate the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. The document has also been condemned on other grounds such its failure to take responsibility for the Church's promulgation of anti-Judaism, for its insistence on differentiating between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and for its positive appraisal of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.

A peculiar feature of the document is that it falls short of recent pronouncements made by Pope John Paul II and representatives of the church the world over. Eight years ago, Pope John Paul II using the Jewish word teshuvah, said the Church itself had to repent. The Pope has also undertaken many public acts to announce the Church's positive sentiments towards the Jews, such as a visit to the central synagogue in Rome, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, and statements condemning anti-Semitism as a sin and recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish religion. Moreover, he organized an international conference of Catholic scholars to reflect on the Church's role in teaching anti-Judaism. As recently as Good Friday this year, he made the unprecedented statement that the Jewish people "…has been crucified by us for too long," and that not the Jews, "…not they, but we, each and every one of us is responsible for Christ's crucifixion, because we are all murderers of love."

Similarly, over the last few years, bishops from Germany, Poland, France, Hungary and the Netherlands have acknowledged the Church's guilt, expressed repentance and apologized to the Jews. The "French Bishop's Declaration of Repentance" states that the French Church "failed in her mission as a teacher of conscience" in not acting against the Nazis. The German Church's document recognizes that "Christians did not offer due resistance to racial anti-Semitism" that lead to the genocide of the Jewish people. The Vatican document, however, fails to reflect this trend of the Church and its representatives towards admission and acknowledgement of past misdeeds towards the Jews.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer, head of the Holocaust Research Institute at Yad Vashem and Dr. Dina Porat, head of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at the Tel Aviv University, agree that there is certainly a large gap between Pope John Paul II's recent pronouncements and what is written in the document. Bauer refers to the "revolutionary" letter written in October 1987 by the pope to the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In the letter, the pope states that the covenant between God and the Jews exists still and that Jesus' identity as a Jew was a part of God's design to link the coming of the messiah to the Jewish nation. These statements, says Bauer, are contrary to classic Catholic thought.

Professor Israel Gutman, Chief Historian at Yad Vashem, believes that it is important to place the document in its correct context. He asserts that the document fails to reach expectations in unequivocally admitting the Church's complicity in the Holocaust, but he regards the document as representing the positive fruits of inter-Catholic discussion and dialogue between Christians and Jews. The document is also valuable in that it is intended for a very wide Catholic audience, and all religious leaders. It is therefore a powerful educational tool that will be used in sermons and discussions, thereby bringing about a gradual change in the attitudes and beliefs of Christians throughout the world.

Gutman recognizes the difficulty of change in institutions steeped in religious dogma such as the Catholic Church, and therefore appreciates the document as a positive step towards change. The preamble to the document, written by the pope, expresses sincerity and willingness to change the attitude of Catholics towards the Jews. Gutman asserts that the most positive feature in the document is its condemnation of anti-Semitism as a sin. However, he believes that the document is essentially a compromise between those elements in the Church desiring a clear admission of responsibility and other conservative elements opposed to change and dialogue with the Jews.

Porat also finds positive elements in the document including its condemnation of all forms of discrimination, its reference to the Shoah as a tragedy defying description, its confirmation of the Jews as God's Chosen People and of it's description of the Jews as the "elder brothers" of Christians. Like Bauer, she also sees the educative value of the document, especially as a means of silencing Holocaust deniers.

Despite these positive features, both Porat and Bauer find much to criticize including the statement in the chapter entitled "Looking together to a common future" in which the hope is expressed that a new future will exist wherein "…there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews," which suggests that the latter is equal to the anti-Judaism of the Church. Bauer quotes his American colleague, Priest Franklin H. Littell, on this point. Littell insists that the centuries of theological and cultural anti-Semitism in Christendom do not compare so as to allow a statement that implies both dishonors are equal.

Porat also takes exception to the comparison of the Israeli-Palestinian situation (referred to in the document as "the drama of the Middle East") to the Holocaust and other racially based acts of genocide that are listed in the document. This reference to the Middle East seems to echo the Civilta Cattolica (1988) which compares the Holocaust to the suffering of the Palestinians. Bauer sees this as proof that anti-Semitic sentiments still exist in some sectors of the Catholic Church.

One of the harshest criticisms of the document is that it attempts to absolve the Church from all complicity in the Holocaust by stating that: "The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside Christianity and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also". Instead of admitting the Church's role in the Holocaust and in persecutions that preceded it, the document apportions blame on individuals responsible. Bauer believes that the Church's failure was a failure of leadership and authority and that although there were Catholic individuals who were prepared to aid Jews, "the pope's colleagues and priests were not actively told to save the Jews". Bauer also quotes Littell, who writes that attributing the Shoah to a "neo-pagan regime" is "nothing more than a cop-out" and summarizes the document as "too little to represent 11 years of committee work...too late to resolve much of the damage of Christianity".

By claiming that Nazi anti-Semitism "had its roots outside Christianity," the document essentially denies the relationship between the Church's history of teaching and preaching anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. As Bauer asserts, "Without Christian anti-Semitism there would have been no Nazi anti-Semitism." Indeed, Nazi propaganda was a compilation of centuries of Church anti-Semitism. To emphasize his view, Bauer quotes Littell:

We are left with the interpretation that "the long-standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility that we call anti-Judaism" arrived from outer space. The truth is that without centuries of theological anti-Semitism, taught and preached by Christians and confirmed as dogma by church officials, the tragedy of the Shoah would never have befallen us.
Both Bauer and Littell stress the undeniable connection between the Church and the Nazis. Adolf Hitler, himself a Roman Catholic, received his first diplomatic victory from the Church with the signing of the Concordat between the Vatican and the Führerstaat on July 20, 1933. Not once during the war did the Church condemn the Nazi crimes against the Jews. Moreover, when Hitler committed suicide, the presiding officer, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, of the German Bishops' Conference instructed that a mass be said in his memory (5 May 1945). Ironically, the very same Cardinal Bertam is mentioned in a very positive light in the document.

Another controversial feature of the document is its assessment of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. The document states that "Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives...save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives". Attached to the quote is a long footnote which attempts to substantiate this claim. Bauer and Porat agree that Pius XII saved thousands of Jews but reject the notion that he rescued "hundreds of thousands". Geoffrey Wigoder, title?, believes that this praise of Pius XII confirms that the Vatican would never condemn Pius XII for his failure to speak out against the genocide of the Jews. Gutman understands the praise of Pius XII as another compromise between different elements in the Church. The controversy over Pius XII has heralded the call from many quarters for the Vatican to open its archives so that his role can be properly and objectively investigated.